America is facing a crisis of loneliness. With nationwide declines in social connectivity, even the U.S. surgeon general is concerned about the “epidemic of loneliness and isolation” facing Americans.
And Catholics are not exempt from the crisis.
But parishioners at St. Thérèse Little Flower in South Bend, Indiana, might just have a parish-based approach to address the epidemic of loneliness.
The parish has launched a program of “households” – intentional communities of a few dozen people who gather one evening a month for food, fellowship and prayer.
The households each have their own spirituality and devotions, similar to student communities at Franciscan University of Steubenville, one source of inspiration for the initiative.
Participants say they find a sense of community and spiritual accompaniment in their household groups – and also a chance to evangelize.
‘Be loved, be fed’
When Megan Gettinger was getting her family ready for their first household night, she remembers being in a rush.
“Our eight-year-old was like, ‘Wait, wait, wait, hold on. So what are we doing? Where are we going?’” Gettinger, a mom of four and communications coordinator at St. Thérèse told The Pillar.
“I was like, ‘We’re gonna go to so-and-so’s house and it’s going to be a bunch of people from church … and we’re gonna just have food together and talk and pray a little bit,’” she recalled.
“And he goes, ‘Oh, okay, so like Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper.’”
Her son’s observation cut through the stress of getting everyone out the door.
“That’s the goal,” Gettinger said. “That’s the purpose: to create that kind of fellowship, that kind of community that Jesus created with his disciples.”
Gettinger and her husband lead one of the three “households” at Little Flower Parish.
The vision is to foster an environment where individuals are welcomed, loved and drawn closer to Jesus.
“Our tagline is ‘Be loved, be fed,’” said Gettinger.
They mean fed in both a literal and spiritual sense, she added - both “come and get something to eat” and “get your soul fed.”
Abby Kyle, director of evangelization at Little Flower, first brought the idea for households to the rest of the parish staff as a way to more deeply engage Little Flower parishioners, many of whom might otherwise fly under the radar.
“We’ve got 1,500 people who come to Mass on a weekend,” Kyle told The Pillar.
“And we know that real transformation happens in small Christian communities. So how do we take them from the anonymity of being at a Mass of 400 people to a small community?”
Households, Kyle explained, are intended to be a supportive community in which parishioners can form meaningful and lasting friendships with each other — and, most importantly, grow together in their relationships with Jesus.
The groups are deliberately intergenerational, aiming to bring people together across different states in life. That sets households apart from a lot of parish and diocesan events, Gettinger explained.
“I think we’ve maybe gone too far with [specific programming] — so many things like, ‘these are the things for young adults,’ and ‘these are the things for families with kids,’ and ‘these are the things for our older parishioners,’” said Gettinger.
“We need more opportunities to come together.”
Fr. Julius Okojie, the pastor of Little Flower, said that households have already helped strengthen their parish community.
“[Households are] a microcosm of what parish life should be: living together, doing life together,” Okojie told The Pillar. “This is offering people a safe space where they can be themselves.”
Fostering a sense of belonging
At a typical gathering, the hosts of the household evening provide a main dish, and guests bring side dishes to share.
After dinner and conversation, the evening ends with a few minutes of prayer — “something palatable for young kids,” Kyle noted, like a decade of the rosary or a couple of praise and worship songs.
The event lasts about an hour and a half.
“Kids are running around,” Kyle described, “and people are stepping in plates of spaghetti, and, you know, it’s fun, it’s messy.”
The informal hospitality of household night is by design. The evenings are supposed to take place in someone’s home, not on parish property, and they’re open to anyone who would like to come — whether that’s a new parishioner or a neighbor who has never set foot in a church.
“Household is actually one of the best first things that you could invite someone to,” said Kyle.
“I think that the Gospel is transmitted so much more easily with a plate of food in front of you at someone’s home.”
But while households are intended to be shallow entry points for anyone seeking community or faith, they’re anchored by their committed members.
When prospective members decide to join a household, they’re invited to participate in household-specific formation and make a covenant - or formal commitment - to the household and its way of life.
Inquiring members may choose a household based on the people in it or because they’re drawn to its particular spirituality: Each has its own charism, “pillars” (typically specific virtues), foundational Scriptures, and patrons.
Kyle and her husband’s household, for example, is called “Jireh,” meaning “abundance.”
“We want to live a life out of abundance, not out of scarcity,” explained Kyle. “We believe that God is enough, everywhere and in every place and time.”
Covenants likewise reflect the household’s spirituality. Members of Kyle’s household commit to daily prayer, weekly Eucharist, monthly confession, material simplicity (lived through a yearly “purge” of belongings) and percentage-based tithing (they do not specify a percentage).
The covenant does not, however, ask members to stay in the parish indefinitely.
“It’s not a lifelong commitment to the community necessarily,” Kyle explained. “But … the commitment to daily prayer, monthly confession, tithing, simplicity — those are things you can commit to you no matter where you’re at.”
Furthermore, she added, “None of our commitments are anything that Jesus did not already prescribe in the Gospels.”
Gettinger hopes that households will strengthen social and spiritual ties within the parish, regardless of whether attendees of household night ultimately become members.
“I’m hopeful that other people go to Mass and see people they know because they’ve been to a household night with them,” said Gettinger. “And not just ‘know’ like, ‘Oh, we met that one time and now we say hi at Mass,’ [but] like, ‘I know you’ — like, ‘I held your kid on my lap so you could eat with two hands.’”
‘It’s God’s timeline’
While Little Flower’s households are flourishing today, it has been a slow road. Kyle first introduced the idea in the summer of 2018.
After a time of discernment, the staff and then-pastor began to reach out to potential household leaders. Ultimately seven — including Kyle and Gettinger, along with their husbands — committed to becoming household leaders.
Leaders are responsible for the logistics of putting on a household night: While other members are welcome to host, they are never required to do so.
More importantly, leaders set the spiritual tone for the household. As such, Kyle and the Little Flower staff saw fit to begin with a period of formation, which included a retreat and ample prayer time together.
But while it was always Kyle’s vision that they begin with prayer and formation for leaders, Covid unexpectedly lengthened the preparation time ahead of the household launch.
That wasn’t a bad thing, said Gettinger.
“It’s ultimately not our timeline,” she said. “We can have a timeline in our head, but it’s God’s timeline. And I think that allowed us to slow down and not feel so rushed.”
Another major fruit of that pause, Kyle and Gettinger said, was that they did months’ worth of “practice” household nights among leaders — something they recommend for anyone replicating the idea elsewhere.
“Our leaders got to practice doing together what they were going to be doing independently down the line,” said Kyle, “and got to say, ‘Oh, this is what it feels like, this is the appropriate level of chaos that there’s supposed to be, it’s not supposed to be super regimented and ordered’.”
Come the summer of 2021, the group of leaders reached out individually to parishioners they thought would be interested in joining a household. The idea was that by doing a soft launch, the households would be more established when the group announced them to the whole parish.
“Once people started coming, we wanted them to have an actual experience of, ‘This is what households are meant to be’,” said Gettinger — not just showing up to a house with only the leaders and their kids.
The three initial households — Jireh, Rooted in Love and House of Praise — formally launched to the whole parish in the fall of 2021.
The reception was mixed, with some parishioners getting on board right away but many others expressing little interest.
Even so, at 30 to 40 people each, the three households are reaching capacity (at least in how many people can fit under one average-sized roof). Parish staff is now discerning adding a fourth.
Full houses notwithstanding, the leaders are still learning as they go.
In addition to the large monthly gatherings, household members also form small groups — intended to be something like a Bible study that offers more regular opportunities to meet and more intimate friendships.
But the small groups have presented practical challenges.
For some households, the more frequent meetings have presented babysitting demands that have been difficult to meet, and the small groups have yet to gather on a regular basis.
In Kyle’s household, covenanted members are asked to read “Interior Freedom” by Fr. Jacques Philippe and “Happy Are You Poor” by Fr. Thomas Dubay. When they first launched, her household small group read and discussed those books together.
But what happens when a new person joins?
“We’re kind of just waiting to see what works — do we wait for an influx of new inquirers [to form their own new small group], or do we just plug the new people into the existing small group until it grows too large and we have to split it?” said Kyle.
“But then the question if we are integrating people one by one is, ‘How do we give them information that the rest of the group has already had without constantly reading the same books over and over?’”
Gettinger added that her household is still figuring out what their covenant should look like – what exactly its commitments for members should entail.
For Gettinger, letting go of perfection as a host has also been a learning curve of its own — and an important form of vulnerability.
“I’m trusting you’re going to love me even though my basement’s a mess,” she said. “That’s where we’re really called to enter in instead of just playing the host — because, really, for household to work, we have to be entering in.”
‘Come as you are’
Even as their households have grown, Kyle and Gettinger are still extending invitations.
“Household’s messy and can be loud,” Gettinger said they tell invitees, “and you’re welcome here — come as you are.”
Kyle mentioned that she and the other household leaders had felt particularly convicted by a particular Sunday Gospel passage.
In it, Jesus says, “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you” (Luke 14:12-14).
“Are we just inviting the easy, comfortable people?” Kyle reflected. “Jesus said, ‘Don’t invite your friends. When you have dinner, invite the poor.’ We want to make sure that we're inviting the people that Jesus told us we’re supposed to invite to this.”
Little Flower staff believe that the household model could be replicated by other parishes, if there are people willing to carry out the vision, promotion, and maintenance of them.
But Kyle also had an invitation to extend to any Catholics who feel called to evangelize through hospitality.
“If you’ve been baptized and you’ve been equipped, if you’ve got an intimacy with Jesus and you feel like he’s anointed you for a mission, go do it,” she encouraged.
“You don’t need anybody’s blessing to have a Bible study or a small group in your home or invite people over for dinner.”
This article is part of The Pillar's solutions-oriented series highlighting parishes across the U.S. You can read more from this series here.